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Between the clutter and the keepsakes (05/03/2009)
By Janet Lewis Burns

Wisdom is knowing what to keep and what to let go. Poet Stanley Kunitz once wrote, “I have walked through many lives, / some of them my own, / and I am not who I was, / though some principle of being / abides, from which I struggle / not to stray.” - From “The Layers”

As you sit with someone you’re comfortable with, it hardly matters when a veil of quietude softly blankets the aura of togetherness. That will happen when one says all there is to say after a very long time.

Aunt Alma Wollin and I were enjoying one of our frequent visits at Speltz Homes in Lewiston. Michele Speltz popped in to tell us about their kitchen update, out on Wollin’s, Utica Township homestead, that is now her own family’s home. Michele held a jagged piece of brittle wall coverings to show her Great- aunt Alma.

There were five distinguishable layers of wallpaper, vivid to the sight and going back even before my time. Nostalgic images flashed, of that large, inviting room with its bulky, oak table and well-shined wood floor, where down-home meals and congenial conversation nurtured homespun well-being down through the years. Aunt Alma, flushed with emotion, lost herself in that moment of long ago. Once a place is familiar with your footsteps and your shadow it is sanctioned HOME.

Years unfolding carry each of us a little farther from birth and a little closer to death…seasons of life. “It was a spring that never came; / but we have lived long enough to know / That what we never have remains; / It is the things we have that go.” –Sara Teasdale

When women get together to work on a project, there’s much more transpiring than simply quilting, making cookies for a holiday bake sale, or scrapbooking. A group of women, young, old, and in- between, talk to one another. They share what would be considered too personal and emotion-riddled to a man. A woman will dare to leaf back through her layers, to speak from past experiences, to make a drama out of a whimper and to incite closure again and again.

The eyes account for less than 1% of the weight of the human head, yet the whole world opens through the eyes. Seeing is believing! The breathtaking Grand Canyon is an awesome display of sedimentary rocks and soil of brilliant colors deposited in layer-cake fashion. From century to century, this natural wonder remains a vast wilderness, that the Creator has kept, it seems, from human destruction.

Naturalist and author Annie Dillard’s research has unearthed the top inch of forest soil, which she has discovered houses an average of 1,356 living creatures in each square foot, including 865 mites, 265 springtails, 22 millipedes, 19 adult beetles, and the chrysalids of butterflies, folded, rigid, and dreamless.

As activity slows and willpower dwindles, telltale signs take their toll on humans. Physically, layers often appear on aging bodies. These added attractions are crudely dubbed “spare tires.” Then there are those layers of knowledge, accumulated and trapped in gray matter, that take time to sort through and to retrieve from a cluttered brain.

From generation to generation, material possessions, along with stories, beliefs, and traditions are passed along. We seem to lean toward relics familiar to our ancestors, those personal keepsakes that evoke thoughts of a simpler, more down-to-earth way of life.

Stanley Kunitz wrote beautiful, sensitive poetry at a very old age. My favorite lines haunt remembrance: “Live in the layers, / not on the litter…no doubt the next chapter/ in my book of transformations / is already written. / I am not done with my changes.”

If the pearly gates would flash a welcome sign, it might say, “Come as you are.”

Janet Burns lives in Lewiston. She can be reached at patandjanburns@embarqmail.com

 

 

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